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>> tonight on frontline... >> i'm off to do something that would not be my choice >> a story about struggling to live... >> i love you. i love you, sweetheart. >> ...and deciding when to die. >> so i guess i'm ready for the medicine. >> is this a choice everyone should have? >> if you drink this, you're going to die. >> from academy award-winning filmmaker john zaritsky, a
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portrait of one man's last days, and a personal exploration of one of our most controversial questions. >> if somebody wants to take their own life, obviously, they feel a reason for that. you may not think it's a good reason. i may not think it's a good reason. but you know what? it's that person's life. >> safe journey. >> tonight on frontline, "the suicide tourist." >> frontline is made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major funding is provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation. committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world.
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and by reva and david logan. committed to investigative journalism as the guardian of the public interest. additional funding is provided by the park foundation. dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. and by the frontline journalism fund. >> i am dying. there is no sense in trying to deny that fact, nor my
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conviction that the end of my long journey through life is rather close. rather surprisingly, i find that i feel much the way i imagine immigrants to america must have felt in the 19th century. i cannot stay where i have been, and i embark on a journey to a destination of which i have only heard the vaguest rumors.
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>> narrator: on the day of his scheduled suicide, craig ewert arrives at an apartment building in zurich, switzerland, along with his wife mary. five months earlier, ewert, a 59-year-old american, was diagnosed with als, often called lou gehrig's disease. if he carries through with his plan, his body will leave this building in a hearse by the end of the day. >> i'm not really asking myself if i want to do it or not. i do want to do it. but, you know, there are other things in my life that i've wanted to do that i didn't do. ( elevator rings )
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>> so, the nurse the other day didn't shave you, did she? >> narrator: a chicago native, craig ewert began to seriously consider suicide in the summer of 2006 while living in northern england. >> it got to be the middle of the august and... and i fell down coming inside from having been out. and it was rather traumatic for me. and that's really when i kind of started thinking, "you know, this is serious. i've... i've deteriorated enough."
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you can only watch so much of yourself drain away before you kind of look at what's left and say, "this is an empty shell." >> now, let's take this off. i'm worried that that's going to develop into a problem, just like the bridge of your nose did. >> once i become completely paralyzed, and then i'm nothing more than, in a sense, you know, a tube that takes in some nutrients, probably through a tube in the stomach, and then i excrete. i'm going to have to be cleaned and watched. and... and it's painful. >> sorry. does it need more cream, do you think, or what?
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it looks... it doesn't look too bad. i'll get some cream in a bit. okay? i probably appear to be rather unmoved, perhaps people would say. i don't know. but i think the thing is to remember that we've been dealing with this for months and months. so that, probably, my worst times were when they were just kind of coming up with the diagnosis. i think having to do the daily care sort of makes you have to be... >> stronger? >> yeah, and just, you know, it's daily life. you have to get on. you either do that or you fall apart. and what good does the latter do? >> we talked about it. we talked about, do i really want to do this?
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and when do we want to do it? we discuss everything. >> narrator: when craig and mary first met in the late 1960s, mary was an outgoing irish catholic girl from a conservative family, and craig was an introverted agnostic. >> how did we meet? >> it was a dark and stormy night. >> so to speak. i was getting kind of desperate for a woman. i was driven by the gonads. so, i asked my friend if his girlfriend could set me up with a blind date for one of... i think it might have been a concert or something. >> i didn't know where we were going to go, because we didn't get to go there. >> no, we didn't. >> because that was the day martin luther king was assassinated. so that was why it was a dark
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and stormy night. >> narrator: the following summer, craig and mary eloped. >> it was as if there was sort of quick courtship. "this is fun, marriage." and then, the realization that... >> "oh, my god, i'm married." >> "i'm married." how do i relate to this person? >> it took me a long time to realize i needed to talk to her. i refused to give up on this marriage. and i think you did, too. >> mm-hmm. >> and, by golly, if we had to get through some rocky points to... to keep it going, we would. >> so, we always say we've been married 37 years, and 32 of them have been wonderful. >> narrator: during those years, craig became a professor of computer science, while mary raised their two children in a suburb of chicago. craig retired early, and
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wanted to live abroad after the kids were grown. he took a part-time teaching job in england, while mary studied for a phd. in law. >> we had established a very nice rhythm of life. and we lived together and cared for each other. it was a very nice life. and i had hopes that it would go on for a decade or so. >> narrator: then, early in 2006, craig said he began feeling strangely weak, and it was not long after that he received his als diagnosis. >> i'm not going to get a chance to be a cantankerous old man. >> i know. well, you're a cantankerous enough middle-aged man. >> narrator: as his condition steadily worsened, he began to actively pursue the option of physician-assisted suicide. his research led him to a
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controversial organization based in this neighborhood outside zurich, switzerland. it's called dignitas, and it's the most active of the country's four assisted- suicide groups. its founder, human rights lawyer ludwig minelli, says the group has facilitated over 1,000 deaths. >> if somebody is coming and tells us, "i have enough of this awful life, and i would like to go now," we should have the opportunity to help him. >> narrator: assisted suicide is legal in switzerland and several other countries, as well as three u.s. states. but only switzerland allows outsiders to come in to end their lives, leading to criticism about "suicide tourism." the backlash against ludwig minelli has been especially sharp, as his 30-year campaign
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for the right to die has led him to take increasingly provocative positions. >> we all know that suicide happens. and when you are saying suicide should not happen, you make taboo of suicide. so, we should change the starting point of suicide prevention, saying suicide is a marvelous possibility for a human being to restore themself from a situation which is unbearable. >> do you want some chocolate? >> i'm just happy over the grapes. >> narrator: an assisted suicide through dignitas would require craig to perform the final act himself, by drinking the liquid sedative that would end his life. but he's worried that he may soon lose the ability to swallow. >> i can't take that risk. because, i mean, that's... that's really choosing to be
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tortured rather than to end this journey and then start the next one. >> now, a few grapes? >> that'd be nice. >> these are kind of the last of the grapes. >> i'm not tired of living. i'm tired of the disease, but i'm not tired of living. and i still enjoy it enough that i'd like... i'd like to continue, but the thing is that i really can't. >> are you getting tired of cucumber? >> i'm getting tired of vegetables. >> you are? well, i guess you can stop having them when you want to. you've almost eaten... >> narrator: craig knew from his research that als sufferers live, on average, two to five years. but craig's disease was progressing rapidly, and he
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feared total paralysis. >> and, a lot of the statements you read are like, "most people have a peaceful death." that's fine for "most people." but what if i'm one of those who doesn't? what might look peaceful from the outside does not necessarily reflect the internal mental state of the person. let's face it, when you're completely paralyzed-- can't talk, can't move your eyes, can't move your arms-- how do you let somebody know you're suffering? they look at you and you're still, and usually, we associate suffering with people kind of rolling around and going "ow, ow, ow." there's none of that. "gee, it must be peaceful."
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well, no, it doesn't have to be peaceful. this could be a complete and utter hell. >> narrator: before setting a date to die, mary and craig invited their two children to come to england for one last visit. >> i think it was a great gift to me that i was able to be sure that he heard what i had to tell him, and that he understood. and he knew how fiercely i loved him, and still do, and how proud i am of him, how proud i was to be a member of his family throughout his life, and in the courage and
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manner of seeking his death. >> i tried not to cry in front of him a lot while i was there, because i didn't want... i don't know why. but i did finally cry in front of him. and i said, "you know what? i don't want you to think that i'm not sad." and i just gave him a hug and a kiss, and i said good-bye. >> narrator: a few weeks later, mary and craig contacted dignitas and set the date for craig's suicide. using a voice-activated computer, craig dictated his thoughts about his coming death in an email to his children back in america. >> i am dying, period. there is no sense in trying to
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deny that fact. i truly expect that death is the end, comma, that there is no everlasting soul, comma, no afterlife, period.% feel free to speak to me at any time, dash, i probably won't answer, comma, but thentke i was frequently more of an ear than a mouth. >> so, this is our video chat for today, which i will be
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sending to... to ui >> hey, there, family. >> so, we went to the park this morning because... >> ...we had coffee. >> we had coffee. and then, it looked like it was going to rain. but now, it's sunny out. i wasn't sure exactly how it's going to work. so, we're going to try to wrap this up, now, because i'm sure you're getting fatigued of looking at us. >> i can't wave, but i'm trying to. there we go. at this point, you know, i've... i've got two choices: i either actually go through with it, or i say, "you know what? i'm too scared right... right now. i... i don't want to do it." if i go through with it, i die, as i must at some point.
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if i don't go ÷2:úhzzh my choice is, essentially, to suffer, and to inflict suffering on my family, and then die, possibly in a way that is considerably more ,éxzful than this way. i've got death. i've got suffering and death. well, gee, you know, this makes a whole lot of sense to me. >> what do you think about this power toothbrush? do you think it helps at all? yeah? >> mm-hmm. there are people who will look at this and say, "no, suicide is wrong. god has forbidden it. you cannot play god and take
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your own life." well, all right, fine. but you know what? this ventilator is playing god. if i had lived without access to technology, chances are i would be dead now, all right? when premature babies are born, they are given intensive medical treatment. their lives are saved because doctors and nurses are playing god. they're saying, essentially, "god's plan was that this person would die right now. we're thwarting that. we're playing god." and, you know, they never say "we have to stop organ transplants. we have to stop saving premature babies. we have to let them die."
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oh, no, for that, it's okay to play god. it's only when it might ease somebody's suffering that, "oh, we can't play god" comes out. >> how would you feel about a yeah? okay. i'll go get that ready. >> and do we have a flapjack? >> we do have a flapjack, a chocolate one. would you like that? okay. i'll be back shortly. are you all set there? >> yep. >> okay. >> there is an old parable about a monk who's being chased by a tiger. the monk comes to a... to a cliff, scrambles over the cliff and finds a tree root to hold onto. so he holds onto the tree
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root. the tiger is prowling around up above, sniffing and growling, waiting for him to come back up so he can eat him. he looks down to the ground, and there's another tiger waiting for him to let go and fall. and the tiger's going to eat him when he falls. and he looks around, and he... he spots a strawberry bush so, he reaches out, plucks the strawberry, eats it with great contentment, and declares it delicious. and i've kind of taken that as... as a good way to live your life. you know, the fact that i know the date i'm supposed to die)>am simply makes definite what was previously indefinite and unknown. but it's still the case that
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the only thing you've got is this second. right now, i'm alive. and if i can enjoy what i'm doing now, if i can feel that it is worthwhile, that's really all i can ask of it. >> we've gotten a lot of the orange blossoms and the plants.xñ/ it's just incredibly large. >> it has that smell. >> does it? >> yeah. would you like to take your thing off? >> yeah, take it off. : shall i turn it off? can you smell it? yeah?
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>> well, you know, it's just so peaceful here. and i like touching bases with it. it's... i see the plants, and they're dying. and i'm dying too. kind of a little kinshipu there. they'll be coming back next i'm unlikely to. i've had a pretty good run.$i i think i can take my bow and say, "thanks. it's been fun." and do it again. >> so, we hope that you're well.
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we're going to send this video. hmm, it's about 10:00. we wish you a lovely evening. and we love you both. okay. love you! we'll talk to you soon. bye. >> i love you. >> i love you, too. >> narrator: two days before her husband's scheduled suicide, mary ewert reviewed travel details with dignitas employee sylvan luley. >> how is craig doing? i just wanted to sort of double check with you in regard of the... of the journey. >> the estimated time of arrival, zurich time, is 19:55.
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so, that's almost 8:00 in the evening. >> okay. >> oh, i had one more question for you. >> narrator: craig had decided that, at the time of his death, he wanted to listen to the first movement of beethoven's ninth symphony. >> is there cd player available if we wanted to bring some music along? >> cd player is there. >> it is there? okay, very good. okay, here we go. >> i'm scared. >> hmm? >> i'm scared. >> i know. of being there, right? >> i'm scared of everything. >> you're scared of everything? well, i would be, too. >> i'm running like a rabbit. >> no, you're not. if you were running like a rabbit, you wouldn't have to do this now. >> i wouldn't be here. >> all right, here we go. down the corridor. looking for the white light,
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right? >> it feels bizarre. in a way, it's kind of like the first day of school. you don't really know what's going to happen. it's hard to realize that... i'm not going to read my books again. i'm not going to hear my music. i'm, you know, leaving it behind. i'm off to do something that would not be my choice had i other options.
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that is sad. but, on the other hand, i do have the adventure of dying coming up. and if there is anything beyond that, i have that adventure. >> narrator: it's now the day before craig's scheduled suicide, but according to swiss law, the ewerts can't go forward without a doctor's approval. dr. hans jurg schweizer, a retired surgeon is one of the few doctors willing to work with dignitas. he's agreed to review craig's
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records and to decide whether to prescribe the lethal sedative. but he's cautious. the swiss government has been pressuring doctors to restrict assisted suicide to only the most desperate cases. still, patients like craig remain good candidates. >> i've decided, according to the papers, that i feel i can write the recipe to grab the medicament. i have this recipe already written. it is here. but, my question usually is, you know, when you drink, what is happening. it is nothing else but a sleeping medication. it's a sleeping medication in a very high dosage, because it has no sense when you want to go to sleep forever, that you wake up. and, this is something you want to be sure, and we can assure you that you will not
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wake up anymore. >> okay? >> that's what i'm looking for. >> that's what you are looking for. >> i'm here because i want to be. >> sure. >> at any point in time, i can change my mind and say, "you know what? not today." and that will be respected by everyone present. i'll lose a little self- respect, but that's my problem. based on everything i've heard and what i've read, i have a fair idea, i believe, of what to expect, right up to the point where... well, i guess where i'm dead. >> yeah. >> at which point... >> yep, yep. >> ...nobody knows what the hell is going on. so, i'll just hope. >> craig, i usually say, "happy journey." >> thank you.
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>> narrator: once the doctor has written the prescription for the fatal dose of sodium pentobarbital, a dignitas representative will pick it up at a pharmacy. ludwig minelli occasionally performs these errands, but he never attends a death, in part, he's acknowledged, to insulate himself from any possible legal problems. >> i am never present at assisted suicide because i do not mix the functions. i am the director of dignitas. i have to choose to give instructions to my collaborators, and so i cannot mix myself in the functions.
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>> narrator: dignitas has sometimes struggled to find a place for its assisted suicides. at the time of craig ewert's arrival, they rented this zurich apartment. arthur bernard, a retired social worker, has come to prepare for craig's death. the man who will prepare the fatal drug and help him drink it. >> i really do not know much before i come, you know. i have no prejudice, nothing. i just got the full person, the full human being that comes to me directly in the moment. and that's, for me, important, you know. >> narrator: arthur bernard believes that his first responsibility is to make sure that those he helps die are really ready to die. on rare occasions, he tells
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us, that isn't the case. >> there was a man in the middle age, and we talked to him. he came alone. and then, he said, to make it short, you know, he said, "today, it's not the time today to die." he wanted to talk to his children again. he did not say, really, adieu, good-bye to his children. so, he went back, and he had quite a journey to go back. but i was glad, you know. >> you know, in terms of having my children there at the end, i figured, well, in a sense, maybe they have the same... same feeling that, you know, it would be easier for them.
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and i also realized that it would be easier for me if they weren't here because if they... if they were here, i'd be talking to them, and i would probably want to keep talking to them. and i anticipate that it would have been more difficult for me to go through with it. >> i think i was glad. i was glad that the decision was made for me. i didn't really want to have to make the decision of whether i was going to be there or not, because part or me would have liked to have been there, and part of me thought, "wow, that's going to be really hard." >> i remember, now, a guy came from liverpool.
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he was a rather younger guy, and he was very badly ill, you know. he could not move anymore, but he could talk, and he was very intelligent, you know. and he asked me, "have you got some beatles music, the mercy sound?" and i said, "i'm afraid i'm sorry, i don't have beatles music, but i know the beatles. maybe, if you don't mind, we sing together." so, we sung together "a long and winding road," "ob-la-di, ob-la-da," and it was the last moment of his life. >> it is a sad occasion, and you make the best you can out of it. but, you know, it is, ultimately, sad. and while i'll enjoy the strawberries while i can... while i can find them,
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sometimes... sometimes, you know, i just look at the tiger. and i'm... and i'm sad. now, i can't afford to look too much because, frankly, if i start crying, i'm not going to be able to breathe. so, you know, i... i pretty well have to pull off from that. and you've been very strong with this. you've cried on occasion. but, by and large, you've... you've been supportive of my choices, and you've always been there for me to talk with. >> and you, me. >> and, when i'm scared, i... i could talk with you. and when i just have something i want to unload, i talk with you. >> another value of learning to talk, right? >> yes, it has been. you've been very good for me.
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>> it's somehow like a surprise every time, you know. i don't know what happens, so i don't think much about it, because i meet these people, and it's like a new day, you know, a new world, yeah. ♪ ♪
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>> narrator: at 9:40 am on the day of his scheduled suicide, craig ewert arrives at the apartment where he and mary are met by arthur bernard and sylvan luley of dignitas. he begins the process that will lead, within hours, to his death.
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>> are you all right? >> okay. >> i move you here on the terrace, is all right? i explain, now, to you, the procedure, hmm? >> okay. >> first, i'll give you a drink to support your stomach. and when you drink that, we have time. you can wait an hour, about. then, you can take the last medicament. i have another question, mr. ewert. when you drink the last medicament, i usually make a video, just of the act of drinking, so that the swiss officials that i can see that you have drunk it yourself and nobody helped you.
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of course, if it's necessary, i can hold the glass, but you have to drink it yourself. so, if you don't mind, i'll make this video, if you have no objections. >> it's not my intent to cause difficulties for anyone. you are helping me. >> but it's you that you decide, huh? and you decide when it is time that you want to drink. >> okay. >> you can tell me. we can wait. we can talk. you have... i have time the whole day. it's up to you. so, it doesn't matter if you drink the first drink, or if you want to wait. >> i might as well. >> you take it now, huh? okay. i go and prepare it. >> okay. >> as i explained, we have a special device which is meant
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to switch off the current supply for the... for the breathing aide. >> yes. >> so, if the timer starts, and it's set to about 45 minutes, then, after 45 minutes, it will switch off the... the electricity supply to the breathing aide. >> if you want to take the first drink. >> narrator: at around 11:00 am, craig drinks the medicine that will prepare his stomach for the lethal sedative to come. >> give me some apple juice. >> how does it taste? >> not too bad, huh? >> it's not too bad, but i sure wouldn't... i wouldn't rank it high on my favorites. >> you prefer apple juice, huh? okay. >> i think it might be good if you do a quick rehearsal where you can activate the switch. >> okay. >> the easiest is to press with your fingers.
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you have to... i'll hold this for you, and you have to activate it if you can. >> no. >> well, then, the alternative is to bite on it. do you think you can handle that? >> i can do that. >> okay, well, let's try it. okay. i'll hold it for you. there we go. and now, the timer is set on 45 minutes, all right. >> like i said, i'm mildly curious. >> i beg your pardon? >> i see that there are settings for 15 minutes, 25 minutes. why was 45 minutes chosen? >> well, 45 minutes have been chosen because, after the drinking the sodium pentobarbital, you fall asleep, usually around... within about five minutes. sometimes it takes a little bit longer, a little bit shorter, but usually it's around four or five minutes.
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and then, the effects of the sodium pentobarbital come after usually about half an hour. >> ah, okay. >> so, that leaves sufficient time to say, "well, sodium pentobarbital worked," and death would have occurred if not the breathing aide would keep you alive, so to say. >> okay, that makes sense to me. i've learned something new. every day, learn something new. >> even in the last moments. >> even in the last day. thank you. >> no problem. >> so, i guess i'm ready for the medicine. >> shall i prepare the medicament, huh? yeah. okay.
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>> scratch my left eyebrow. ah. my right eye, underneath. ah, thank you. >> okay. >> thanks. >> all righty. >> i think i see my medicine. >> can i give you a big kiss? >> of course. >> okay. i love you. >> i love you, sweetheart. so much. >> okay. have a safe journey, and i'll see you some day. >> are you ready to activate the timer? >> i'm ready to activate. >> okay.
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>> bernard, ready? >> yep. >> okay. very good. >> there we go. >> the timer is switched on now, and it's now running. >> mr. ewert, if you drink this, you are going to die. >> yes. ugh. give me some more apple juice.
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please. can i have some music? >> music? >> music. >> okay, just a little bit more, it looks like. >> can you drink this? >> yes. all right. >> that's all. ( beethoven's "ninth symphony" plays ) >> just a little bit. just a little bit.
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>> more. >> thank you. >> safe journey. have a good sleep. ( beethoven's ninth symphony plays ) >> some apple juice, no? ( beethoven's ninth symphony plays )
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( monitor flatlines ) >> he's gone. >> he's gone.
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( speaking local language ) >> narrator: as required under swiss law, arthur bernard telephones the police to notify them of craig ewert's suicide. ( speaking local language ) >> narrator: in a routine procedure that the swiss prosecutor did not want filmed, the authorities conducted a brief
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investigation and watched the videotape. after they determined that craig's suicide had been voluntary, his body was taken to a crematorium. the ewerts had already paid dignitas about $4,500 to cover the cost of his assisted suicide, cremation and shipment of his ashes back to mary. from her hotel, mary ewert phoned her children and other family members, then e-mailed close friends to tell them of craig's death. >> if, in some ways, i seem a bit contained, i think it's because, in a sense, i lost craig six months ago, as he was. and so, with that said, we still had time to talk.
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and we talked a lot. so, in that way, i probably... we probably had more of one another than, maybe, in the past. but, sort of the healthy "life goes on" sort of manner, that was gone, and i think i was very sad when that happened. i say i feel his presence. now, to some people, that would be like the spirit hovering or whatever. i don't know. but i know that we had a great time together, and that he left me with a lot of happy memories. so, where he is, is really immaterial.
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>> someone once said, "he is not completely gone as long as one person remembers his name." my love and best wishes to all of you. >> explore more of this story on our web site, where you can watch the full program again online. learn how members of the ewert family are doing three years after the making of this film. view the story of another
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couple seeking the help of dignitas. >> and as we've lived together 50 years, we... we wanted to die together. >> get more information about assisted suicide in the us and abroad. let us know your opinion, and please join the discussion at pbs.org. >> next time on frontline... >> it's a multibillion-dollar enterprise. >> some say it's madness. >> how much do you make as head of the ncaa? >> we don't discuss our salaries. >> everyone's getting rich... >> who are these people making all this money? >> ...except the players. >> shouldn't the kids get a piece of that? >> it's amateurism or it isn't. >> lowell bergman investigates. >> i'm a fan. why should i care? >> you shouldn't care, unless you have some weird obsession with justice. >> "money and march madness," on the next frontline. >> frontline is made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you.
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and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major funding is provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation. committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. and by reva and david logan. committed to investigative journalism as the guardian of the public interest. additional funding is provided by the park foundation. dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. and by the frontline journalism fund. captioned by media access group at wgbh access.wgbh.org >> for more on this and other frontline programs, visit our web site at pbs.org.
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>> frontline's "the suicide tourist" is available on dvd. to order, visit shoppbs.org, or call 1-800-play-pbs. >> you're watching pbs.
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tv
Frontline
PBS March 23, 2011 4:00am-5:00am EDT

The Suicide Tourist News/Business. (2010) The Swiss nonprofit group Dignitas helps people with terminal illnesses to end their lives. (CC) (Stereo)

TOPIC FREQUENCY Craig 24, Mary 10, Dignitas 8, Craig Ewert 5, Zurich 4, Swiss 4, Switzerland 4, Arthur Bernard 4, Pbs 3, God 3, Ludwig Minelli 3, England 3, Park Foundation 2, Chicago 2, Corporation For Public Broadcasting 2, Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation 2, Ewert 2, Mary Ewert 2, Beethoven 2, I. 2
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